Jewish History of the Greenwich Village Historic District
With neighborhoods like the Lower East Side and Upper West Side in close proximity, Greenwich Village, and more specifically the Greenwich Village Historic District, is not one of the first places in New York that pop to mind when one thinks of our city’s Jewish history and heritage. But from Greenwich Village’s oldest home to its only remaining cemetery, and much more in between, the Greenwich Village Historic District is quite rich in Jewish history, and the Jewish community’s presence remains in the neighborhood to this day.
The Greenwich Village Historic District’s Jewish History is, in many ways, a story of homes. While the very first Jew to arrive in New Amsterdam in the mid-1600s came from Holland, the first Jewish settlers of the Dutch colony which became New York were twenty-three Spanish and Portuguese or Sephardic Jews who fled Brazil after the Portuguese seized the Dutch colony there, ending the Dutch policy of religious tolerance. They formed Congregation Shearith Israel, which still exists today and is now located on Central Park West. In 1695, a map of the city shows a synagogue on Beaver Street, which was made up of 20 families. In the years to come, as the Jewish community and New York itself grew, Jews found their way to the Greenwich Village, and specifically to the section of the neighborhood which is now the Greenwich Village Historic District. Here are just a few examples of that rich heritage:
The Isaac-Hendricks House, 77 Bedford Street
It was 1799 – a decade since the Revolution – and Greenwich Village was a quiet place, with farms and rolling hills. Bedford and Commerce Streets had just been opened, and Joshua Isaacs began building his wooden home on their corner. He finished it a year later, making the home what is believed to be the oldest building in Greenwich Village. Almost immediately, Isaacs was forced to declare bankruptcy. His son in law, Harmon Hendricks, who was married to his daughter Sarah, bailed him out by buying the property in 1801. All were descendants of the original Sephardic Jewish settlers of New York.
Some sources, including The Book of Jewish Lists, say that Hendricks, an iron and metal titan, was the first millionaire in the country. It bragged: “The first millionaire in America…was Harmon Hendricks, a Sephardic Jew who founded America’s first copper rolling mill in the late 1700s.” The New York Times also profiled Hendricks, calling him a “pioneer.” Along with his brother Solomon, their office on South William Street was prosperous, and among other clients, they were agents for the well-known Bostonian Paul Revere, which would put them deep in the realm of revolutionary supporters. That and the War of 1812 generated a great deal of work for Hendricks, and his father-in-law Jacob Isaacs, who partnered with him in his work. In addition to 77 Bedford Street, Hendricks purchased the block of Greenwich Avenue between Bank and 12th Street, among other properties both north and south of the Village.
When Hendricks died in 1821, he was buried in the Third Shearith Israel Spanish Portuguese Synagogue Cemetery on 21st Street in Chelsea. Hendricks left his estate to his six children. His daughter Hettie, who was married to Aaron L. Gomez, another Sephardic Jew who was also a member of the Shearith Israel Congregation (the city’s first synagogue), got the Bedford Street house. They left the house to their son Horatio, and, despite family conflict over the estate, 77 Bedford stayed in the Horatio-Gomez family until 1923. In reporting on the sale, The New York Times recapped the long history of the Hendricks and Gomez ownership, and described the buildings on their property, saying: “Most of the houses there retain the old-fashioned characteristics of half a century or more ago, and are interesting survivals of Greenwich Village’s more aristocratic residential days.”
The house was bought by artists who turned the area of Bedford and Commerce into the artist enclave it continues to be today, as home to the Cherry Lane Theatre. This home is now owned by Angelina Fiordellisi, the Cherry Lane Theatre’s Founder, Artistic Director, Producer, and Board President.
Second Cemetery of Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, 72 West 11th Street
In 1492, Spain ordered all Jews living within the kingdom to either convert to Christianity or be expelled. Portugal did the same less than five years later. Some of those Jews converted and remained in Spain or Portugal, either secretly practicing their faith or genuinely converting (even some of those, however, continued to face persecution). Many more, however, fled to North Africa and the Ottoman Empire, Holland, and eventually the New World. Some of these Sephardic Jews (Jews with roots in the Iberian peninsula who spoke Ladino, a cross between Hebrew and medieval Spanish and Portuguese), eventually ended up in New York, becoming the first Jewish settlers of our city, long before the flood of Ashkenazi Jews in the late 19th and early 20th century (Jews with roots in Germany who settled in Eastern Europe after their expulsion from the German lands, and who spoke Yiddish — a cross between Hebrew and medieval German), who form by far the majority of New York’s and America’s Jewish population.
The evidence of these pioneering Spanish and Portuguese Jews can still be seen in the Greenwich Village Historic District in the Second Spanish & Portuguese Shearith Israel Cemetery on West 11th Street, just east of 6th Avenue. Shearith Israel was the only Jewish congregation in New York City from 1654 until 1825, during which time all of the practicing Jews of New York belonged to this single congregation. It was founded by 23 Jews, mostly of Spanish and Portuguese origin. The earliest Jewish cemetery in the U.S. was recorded in 1656 in New Amsterdam when authorities granted the Shearith Israel Congregation “a little hook of land situated outside of this city for a burial place.” Its exact location is unknown. The Congregation’s “second” cemetery, which is today known as the First cemetery because it is the oldest surviving one, was purchased in 1683.
That “First” Cemetery of the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue, Shearith Israel was established in 1683 at 55-57 St. James Place in Lower Manhattan. In 1805, when that cemetery was filled to capacity, the “Second” Cemetery plot was purchased and established on a much larger plot in then-rural Greenwich Village, to which some of the bodies from the First cemetery were moved. The Second Cemetery on 11th Street operated until 1829; during that time the establishment of the Manhattan street grid cut 11th Street through the cemetery, dislodging most of it (many of those bodies were moved to the “Third” cemetery, which still exists on West 21st Street).
What remains today on West 11th Street is a small triangular section of the much larger, original cemetery, still owned and maintained by the Shearith Israel congregation, now located on the Upper West Side.
Blauvelt House, 232 W. 10th St.
John C. Blauvelt built this federal style house for his family in 1833. The building changed hands a number of times, and in 1913, the house became the Home of the Sons and Daughters of Israel. Organized four years earlier, its purpose was to “maintain a home for aged male and female Hebrews.” (Jewish people were often referred to as Hebrews at that time.) The house would serve this role for many years.
By 1931, the Home was using part of the old stable building next door and its capacity had greatly increased. 150 of the residents enjoyed a day at Edgemere, Long Island on July 28, 1931 in the home’s annual outing. For those who cared to dance, an orchestra was organized among residents. According to Daytonian in Manhattan:
“At the head of the musicians is Hyman Brucker, 85, who plays the violin,” reported The Times. “The youngest of the players in the group he will lead is Josel Schulman, 80-year-old drummer. The oldest are Tobia Wildstein and Moses Moskowitz, both 92. Of these, the first is a violinist, the second a singer. The soloist include Jacob Abramowitz, 85, whose specialty is the ukulele, and Mary Wolf, also 85, who will sing.”
By the middle of the century the Home moved to updated, modern facilities uptown. In 1951 the house was converted to two apartments, one on the first floor and a duplex above. Today the house looks much as it did in the late 19th century. Despite minor alterations like replacement windows it is a charming and intact survivor.
Emma Lazarus House, 18 West 10th Street
The mansions of West 10th Street were built in the 1850s as a class of merchants and finance professionals were growing in lower Manhattan. The building at 18 West 10th Street was completed in 1856, and purchased by Mr. Winslow of the Wall Street banking firm of Winslow, Lanier & Co. Winslow’s partner, Lanier, and Lainer’s son & daughter in law took the two houses next door. The house changed hands a number of times before it was sold, in 1883, to Sephardic Jewish merchant Moses Lazarus, who made his fortune with the firm Johnson & Lazarus, which imported and sold sugar.
Lazarus had retired in 1865, and died soon thereafter, and left the house to his children. Emma Lazarus, born on July 22, 1849, was the fourth of seven children. Lazarus, who’s been called a reclusive spinster, was a lifelong Villager, descended from the first twenty-three Jewish Portuguese immigrants to New Amsterdam (though Lazarus also had some Ashkenazi Jewish lineage on her mother’s side).
The turning point in Emma Lazarus’s life was the outbreak of violent anti-Semitism in Russia and Germany during the early 1880s. When a writer defended these activities in Century Magazine, Lazarus wrote the angry reply “Russian Christianity versus Modern Judaism” in the next issue. From this moment on, she began a private crusade. Her verse took on a new tone of urgency, particularly in Songs of a Semite (1882) and in her play of twelfth-century Jewish life, The Dance to Death. More importantly, she began to organize relief efforts for the thousands of Jewish immigrants crowding into the United States and to write a series of articles for the magazine American Hebrew.
Emma Lazarus is best known now for the sonnet she penned which graces the Statue of Liberty. She was asked by fellow writer Constance Cary Harrison, who wrote “I begged Miss Lazarus to give me some verses appropriate to the occasion. She was at first inclined to rebel against writing anything ‘To order’ as it were.” But write it she did. Lazarus’ sonnet The New Colossus includes the now-famous line:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
The home remains, well preserved on West 10th Street, has changed hands many times. It is now adorned by a facade-full of beautiful ivy and a plaque commemorating Emma Lazarus.
Charles Street Synagogue, 53 Charles Street
Charles Street was created in the early 1800s, though oddly, for some years, the north side of the block between West 4th Street and Bleecker Street was named to honor the Van Ness family’s estate on that block, which is no longer there. Number 2 Van Ness Place became the home of the Dutch Congregation Darech Amuno in 1838. This was their sixth and final location, which they moved into in 1912. In 1938, the congregation weathered an address change, when Van Ness Place was absorbed by Charles Street, and the building became 53 Charles Street.
Before that, when the congregation moved into the building, they undertook a 5-year renovation, to make the building as it is today – narrow, classically-inspired, and as large as possible on its lot, dotted with stained glass and a large rose window.
To this day, the Orthodox congregation remains, enjoying the quiet neighborhood. The community’s work has involved providing free burials for needy Jews in the Mokom Sholom Cemetery in Jamaica, Queens, and bringing music into their community by hosting American roots music concerts in their basement social hall.
The Conservative Synagogue of Fifth Avenue, 11 East 11th Street
The Conservative Synagogue of Fifth Avenue has been serving Greenwich Village and the surrounding neighborhoods for nearly sixty years, based out of a small, two-story house set 50 yards back from East 11th Street, easily recalling the building’s role as a stable when it was first built in the 1840s. After serving as a stable, the building was apparently a brothel, a residence, a hotel, and finally, a synagogue.
In 1921, the owner hired architect C. F. Winkelman to re-build the stable into a one-family dwelling. Popular Mechanics is quoted saying: “In order to protect the hotel’s light, the company decided to take over and improve this property by building a two-story seven-room house. This house, of distinctive Moorish architecture, is set back 50 ft. from the sidewalk, with a picturesque formal garden, laid out with a flagstone walk and low brick walls in front of it. Tucked away between its tall neighbors, it is almost lost to the view of the casual passer-by.”
In 1959, Congregation Etz Chaim (which means tree of life) held its first religious services in this smaller structure that was part of the Fifth Avenue Hotel. When the hotel was sold one year later, this smaller building was sold along with it, sold again, and eventually, the two buildings were split so that Eitz Chaim could move permanently into the small building. At that time, in 1960, the congregation changed its name to The Conservative Synagogue of Fifth Avenue.
Half a century later little has changed to C. F. Winkleman’s Mediterranean remake. The synagogue offers traditional lay- and clergy-led services to a diverse community which celebrates religious services and lifecycles with love and joy.
On our blog, we’ve written much about other synagogues that can be found in the East Village.